Have you ever come across the Amharic language? I definitely haven’t before I made the decision to visit Ethiopia for my research project. Neither did I think that two countries like Cuba and Ethiopia might have influenced each other’s languages for historical reasons. In this post I will share a couple of fascinating facts and stories I learnt about Amharic, about Ethiopia and you will also find out what all this has to do with Cuba…
Let me first explain why I’m going to Ethiopia at all. As part of my PhD, I’m studying health interventions for disabilities in different cultures. Essentially, I’m interested in learning how organisations with varying amounts of resources available decide to use one intervention over another. I’m also interested in why people are motivated to ‘bring about change in health’ and what drives people to do humanitarian work. Finally, I’m also looking at ways in which health- and disability-related organisations negotiate interests and make decisions regarding a health intervention’s financing, adaptation, outcome measures and sustainability. To give you an idea, the kind of people I’m working with are caregivers of children with disabilities, staff members of mental health or disability-focused NGOs, health care staff, local government and UN agencies dealing with related questions. To be able to compare how such processes work in various income settings, I’m visiting different countries, one of which is Ethiopia.
I will dedicate a whole post to explain why I chose Ethiopia, but in a nutshell: I’m hoping to study the questions above in a variety of income settings. As my secondary supervisor is permanently based in Addis Ababa, it made sense to choose Ethiopia to be one of my lower income case studies. Because of my upcoming fieldwork, I decided to go and try to learn at least the basics of one of the local languages, Amharic.
Amharic, the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic, is one of the official languages of Ethiopia. However, it proved to be rather difficult for me to find a place in the UK where I could take Amharic classes. When I started my PhD, I talked to some of my Ethiopian colleagues in King’s College London and asked for their advice. All of them said that other than paying for a private teacher, the only option (in Europe!) is to register for a course in SOAS University.
I hadn’t come across SOAS before, but it turned out it is a world-leading institution dedicated to Asian, African and Middle-Eastern cultures. They run Amharic classes every year for beginners, so I took the challenge to find funding and register as an exchange student. After all, it worked out.
Let me share a couple of fascinating things I learnt about Amharic.
So first, the Amharic script is written in ge’ez, in the liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Church. It isn’t exactly an alphabet because it isn’t the sounds that the script depicts, but rather syllables. This is what it looks like:
The symbols you write down are called ‘fidels’ and they can take as much as 7 different orders! A change in the order of the fidel means that you change its pronunciation by modifying the vowel added to a consonant.
One time, our Amharic teacher decided to introduce us to the world of bargaining in Ethiopia and taught us how to deal with prices in Addis Ababa. Here is what I learnt: most of the time there are no fixed prices so you will need to engage with the merchant to make a deal. You should first ask about the ‘real price’ of the product and the merchant will give you a number. But then, instead of accepting this number or trying to bargain from the very beginning, you ask what the ‘selling price’ is: there is a chance that you will be offered a substantially lower price. So it is from this selling price that you start the real negotiation. In the very end, once the deal is made, you thank the merchant for the deal.
One of my classmates, a student who grew up in London and has Ethiopian parents, had a very interesting question about bargaining: ‘The last time I was in Ethiopia, I overheard people thanking others by saying cigir yallam. But this is not the Amharic expression I learnt from my parents, it just felt really strange to the Amharic ear.’ And then, turning to us, students of non-Ethiopian origins, she went on to explain: ‘Cigir yallam, literally translated, means no problem. But we just don’t say this in Ethiopia. It really sounds strange.’
And then our teacher answered: ‘Yes, it is strange, because it comes from the Cubans, it is a literal translation from Spanish.’
This absolutely shocked me. If there are two countries that I thought would never be related to each other, then those certainly are Cuba and Ethiopia. Coming from Europe, I instantly started thinking of some European country that might have colonised both of these areas, but I just couldn’t think of any.
The answer to what the Cubans were doing in Ethiopia dates back to the 70s, when a couple of things happened all at the same time. Ras’Tafari, who became king under the name of Hayla Selasse, started losing his power in the 70s, while the country’s population was also experiencing from extreme hunger. Meanwhile, Somalia was aiming for reuniting Somali people living in neighboring countries, such as in Ethiopia, and went on to attack Ethiopians. On top of all this, in 1974 a revolution and civil war started in Ethiopia. It was Fidel Castro who sent troops to help this revolution succeed and to defend the country from the Somali attacks. This is how the Cubans ended up in Addis Ababa. Then, as the urban legend goes according to my Amharic teacher, Cubans just literally translated no problem to Amharic and the expression has lived on since then. This is the story of cigir yallam.
I’m leaving for Ethiopia in less than two weeks. I wonder how much I can use of my newly acquired Amharic knowledge over there. I’ll keep you posted.
More about Ethiopia:
If you are interested in the Ethiopian culture and history, a book I recently read and I warmly advise anyone to read is Kirsten Stoffregen-Pedersen’s Les Ethiopiens – Fils d’Abraham. The author used live and study in Jerusalem where she came across the Ethiopian church and expat community. This is the way in which she fell in love with the culture, started learning Amharic and wrote a book about the country’s history, demographics, religions and culture.